Parent and child influences on the development of a Black-White biracial identity

Findings of qualitative study of Black-White families consisting of biracial children/monoracial parents are summarized, and concrete suggestions offered for working with multiracial families in clinical settings.

Authors: Dana J. Stone, PhD, and Megan L. Dolbin-MacNab, PhD

2013-08-CYF-StoneAccording to the 2000 U.S. Census, the first census that allowed individuals to select more than one racial identification, the mixed race population was approximately 7 million (Grieco & Cassidy, 2001; Miville, 2006). A review of the 2010 Census found individuals who self-identified as Black and White specifically accounted for 20 percent of the total multiple race population (Jones & Bullock, 2013). The Black and White multiracial combination has increased the greatest between the 2000 and 2010 Census, growing by over 1 million people or 134 percent (Jones & Bullock, 2013). The purpose of this article is to highlight two themes from a study with Black-White multiracial individuals and their families, and to briefly discuss the clinical and assessment needs of this population as well as the broader social and political implications to assist in promoting healthy biracial and multiracial identity development.

This article briefly summarizes the findings of a larger qualitative study investigating the phenomenon of biracial identity development from the perspectives of both monoracial parents and their biracial adult children in Black-White multiracial families (Stone, 2009). In addition, this study examined how biracial individuals and their parents expressed and solidified the biracial identity with others outside of the family. In-depth, semi-structured interviews were conducted with 10 monoracial mothers, self-identified as white and 11 of their biracial adult children, including 8 females and 3 males between the ages of 18 and 40. The data gathered during the interviews were analyzed using a symbolic interactional conceptual framework and phenomenological methodology.


The findings from this study provide insight into the unique experiences of Black-White multiracial families and offer much needed information about the multiple factors contributing to the racial identity development of Black-White biracial persons (Stone, 2009). In addition, the information related to many of the distinctive and personal struggles of these multiracial families may assist human service professionals, counselors and therapists who work and interact with multiracial families in clinical settings, as well as those individuals who work with interracial families in schools and other community settings. Finally, the findings of this study have important implications for social and political policy.

Summary of themes

The analysis of participants’ experiences of biracial identity development revealed two major themes: (a) familial influences on the biracial identity development process and (b) negotiating one’s racial identity with the “outside” world.

The first theme, familial influences on the biracial identity development process, addresses the interactions, communications and meaning making parents and children had about race and racial identity. In addition, it explains how parents perceived they have influenced the biracial identity development process of their children via open communication and interactions about racial issues, racial heritage, racial discrimination and racial pride. Most families in the study shared the perspective that families co-create meanings about race and racial identity. Mothers in the study talked about the significance of acknowledging that raising biracial children is a unique responsibility requiring thoughtfulness about teaching both sides of their child’s racial heritage, even if they as parents were no longer interracially married. In addition, mothers took responsibility for preparing their children to deal with racial issues in society, including how their children would express their racial identity.

The experience for the biracial adults of growing up with a unique racial heritage meant that the biracial individuals valued being part of an interracial family. Biracial individuals discussed how they must continuously negotiate their biracial identities during interaction with their family members (i.e., parents, stepparents, siblings, grandparents and great-grandparents), friends and communities. While there were several challenges growing up biracial, such as facing discrimination and a culture that does not acknowledge biracial identity in a formal way as of yet, in the end, most of the biracial individuals expressed a sense of pride and resiliency in their racial heritage.

The second theme, negotiating our racial identity with the “outside” world, addresses the ways cultural and social experiences influenced the development of identity for biracial individuals. This theme also covers the parental racial socialization process as well as the interactive and bidirectional relationship between the interracial families and larger society. Negotiating their biracial identity socially proved to be a challenging and rewarding experience for both monoracial parents and their biracial adult children. Friends and/or multiracial support groups played a significant role in the lives of all participants in the study as a place outside of the family to share experiences and connect socially. Location of the family, including community and school, played an important role for the parents and the children when negotiating biracial identity because of the social opportunities to be exposed to diverse others as well as to share their interracial family and their biracial identity with those outside of the family. The historical context of American culture was also central in the lives of these families because of the recentness of the anti-miscegenation laws being struck down. Additionally, the running and subsequent election of the first biracial president of the United States, Barack Obama, gave these families hope for more public recognition and representation of multiracial people in America.

Most families in the study shared the perspective that families co-create meanings about race and racial identity. Mothers in the study talked about the significance of acknowledging that raising biracial children is a unique responsibility requiring thoughtfulness about teaching and talking about both sides of their child’s racial heritage at home as well as advocating for their family and children in the community and the larger American society. In general, the families expressed a strong sense of pride in belonging to this unique sub-group of the population and in their roll of changing the way America understands biracial and multiracial identity.

Practice implications

This study implicates important factors to cover when training multiculturally competent therapists and other mental health professionals to work with multiracial families and individuals. Several participants in the study emphasized the importance of therapists examining their own biases in regard to interracial relationships and multiracial people in general. It is helpful if the therapist has had personal or professional exposure to biracial individuals or interracial families, and imperative that therapists become informed of the possible issues interracial families and multiracial individuals may be facing through continued education and reading current literature. These suggestions have also been supported in the literature for therapist training (Hardy & Laszloffy, 1998; Laszloffy, 2005). Couples and Family Therapists (CFT) and other mental health professionals can reach these families by making connections with local community groups that support multiracial families and informing group members that there are professionals trained to address the needs of these families sensitively.

Clinical treatment suggestions

Assessment. In this study, it was revealed that a supportive family environment and strong parent-child relationships contributed to a positive and healthy biracial identity development process. Thus, when working with interracial families and biracial individuals in a clinical context, it would be crucial to consider during the assessment the impact of multiple family relationships including parents, step family members, siblings, grandparents and great-grandparents as well as to explore the values and beliefs of the parents who are raising the biracial children regarding race and racial identity. Inviting conversations about race and racial identity early in therapy would enable clients to clarify with the therapist whether or not their problems are centered in racial issues. Therapists should also consider the impact of the social and historical context within which the family and individual live. Assessment questions with interracial families and multiracial individuals might also explore what it has meant to the biracial individual to grow up with a unique racial heritage. Several participants in this study were clear that for some multiracial clients in therapy, their racial heritage may not have anything to do with their presenting problem, so it would be critical that therapists ask clients at the outset of therapy rather than assume.

Clinical approaches. The most important factor when working with interracial families is safety and openness between the client family and the therapist in order for intimate conversations about race and racial identity to take place in therapy. In order to approach issues such as managing differences or tension between both sides of the family or not having parental support or parental understanding of experiences associated with the biracial identity development process, is has been suggested by Poston (1990) that therapists encourage interracial parents to talk about their own racial heritage as well as to acknowledge that their child’s racial heritage is different than their own. In addition, when working toward a better understanding between parents and children, Poston recommends forming a family identity as an interracial unit, which signifies coming together at all times, but especially during times of difficulty and challenge. Coming together as a family unit and establishing open communications and a shared belief system about race and racial heritage allows families to succeed together in the face of family of origin and parent-child conflict (Byrd & Garwick, 2006; Poston). This study further supports such an approach.

Social and political implications

Community. The findings of this study indicate that interracial families are contending with many environmental stressors such as racial discrimination and pressure to choose one racial identity. Many parents in this study reported active engagement in their multiracial organizations. Such groups would be beneficial across multiple communities; however, there are often few resources available and little information for how to create and sustain such groups. If such organizations became more visible at the national level, perhaps via open acknowledgement of the existence of multiracial identities and the realities of the multiracial experience by social and governmental agencies, funding might become more available for these groups.

Social change. A major focus of the multiracial movement in America was to allow individuals to choose more than one race on the Census, which is also an effort to “make visible and legitimize the family relationships that are not often assumed by others,” (DaCosta, 2007, p. 86). Although the Census now allows this multiple race choice, many other formal documents, such as birth certificates, school enrollment forms and identification cards, still force multiracial individuals into racially categorical limitations throughout their lifetimes (Root, 1990). When parents and children are forced to choose one racial identity, they are forced to deny one racial identity and also one parent, which devalues the existence of interracial families. As public policy continues to expand to include counting and acknowledging multiracial individuals and families, so too, will understanding of the multiracial experiences in social arenas outside of these families and specialty groups. The findings of this study reveal that Black-White biracial Americans desire to be acknowledged more formally from society as biracial. Perhaps one of the most significant implications of this study, in regard to social change, is that the general population is still not aware that multiracial and biracial people want a choice about their racial identity rather than having it assumed.


Byrd, M. M., & Garwick, A. W. (2006). Family identity: Black-white interracial family health experience. Journal of Family Nursing, 12, 22-37.

DaCosta, K. M. (2007). Making multiracials: State, family, and market in the redrawing of the colorline. Stanford, CA: Stanford University.

Grieco, E. M., & Cassidy, R. C. (2001). Overview of race and Hispanic origin 2000. U. S. Census Bureau, Census 2000 Brief Series (PDF, 145KB) (C2KBR/01-6). Washington, D.C. Retrieved December 12, 2007.

Hardy, K. V., & Laszloffy, T. A. (1998). The dynamics of a pro-racist ideology: Implications for family therapists. In M. McGoldrick (Ed.), Re-visioning family therapy: Race, culture and gender in clinical practice (pp. 118-128). New York: Guilford.

Jones, N. A., & Bullock, J. J. (2013). Understanding who reported multiple races in the U.S. decennial census: Results from census 2000 and the 2010 census. Family Relations, 62, 5-16.

Laszloffy, T. A. (2005, March/April). Multiracial families. Family Therapy Magazine, 4, 38-43.

Miville, M. L. (2006). Multiracial Individuals. Encyclopedia of Multicultural Psychology. Retrieved January 28, 2008.

Poston, W. S. C. (1990). The Biracial identity development model: A needed addition. Journal of Counseling and Development, 69, 152-155.

Root, M. P. P. (1990). Resolving “other” status: Identity development of Biracial individuals. Women and Therapy, 9, 185-205.

Stone, D. J. (2009). Parent and child influences on the development of black-white biracial identity (Doctoral dissertation).

Author bio

Dana J. Stone, PhD, LMFTDana J. Stone, PhD, LMFT, is an assistant professor in department of educational psychology and Counseling Marriage and Family Therapy program at California State University Northridge. Her research focuses on exploring parent child relationships between interracial couples and their biracial children, specifically how the intersections of race, class and gender influence the biracial identity development process. Her educational interests also include expanding and improving academic writing skills for marriage and family therapy masters level students.

Megan L. Dolbin-MacNab, PhD, LMFTMegan L. Dolbin-MacNab, PhD, LMFT, is an associate professor in the department of human development at Virginia Tech. She is also the clinical training director for the Family Therapy Center of Virginia Tech. Her research focuses on relationship dynamics in grandparent-headed families, the experiences and well-being of children raised by grandparents, and best practices for intervention with this population. Her research interests also include dyadic research, mixed methods research, program evaluation and community-based participatory research.